While fortifications and stately homes have been known since ancient times, the combination of those functions arose in Europe around AD 900, as strongholds of local feudal lords, to hold off enemy raids by Vikings, Magyars, Saracens and nomads, as well as rival lords.
The rise of castles is usually held as the transition from the Early Middle Ages to the High Middle Ages; periodization is however a construction of the afterworld, and no specific year can be pointed out as the "year zero" of castle construction. While knights, men of noble birth, skilled in warfare from horseback, had been around since the 8th century, they became organized in religious orders, who usually had castles built.
Castles went through many stages of development, to respond to military and economic needs. They were usually built on high ground, to improve their role of defense, as well as their role for observation and prestige. A castle was usually the dominant building of a town, only contested by the church.
The adoption of gunpowder weapons from the 14th to the 17th centuries made castles gradually less useful as fortifications, and replaced by bastion forts. The style with towers and battlements remained for decoration of palaces and grand houses well into the 19th century, and can still be seen in novelty architecture.
- 1 Château Guillaume-le-Conquérant de Falaise, Falaise, Normandy. The, Place Guillaume le Conquérant - William the Conquerer's birthplace and an important stronghold of the Dukes of Normandy and English kings until the French king Phillipe Augustus wrested the castle from the hands of King John in 1204. The castle remains an impressive example of Norman fortification. Excellent audio-visual displays. English guided tours available (phone ahead). Castle shop.
- 2 Château de Montsoreau-Musée d'art contemporain, Château de Montsoreau, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. UNESCO World Heritage site Housed in the first castle of the Loire to have been built, this museum contains the world's largest collection of Art & Language works, assembled by Philippe Méaille during the last 25 years. Art & Language is a British art movement that has invented and deeply influenced conceptual art and music. The museum includes most famous works of Art & Language, including their renowned Mirror piece, and hosts at least two temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists a year, and many conferences. Photography is permitted. Backpacks are not permitted, but there are free lockers after entrance.
Germany has an abundance of castles as the medieval period saw a vast amount of small and tiny polities gaining de facto independence and there were several low ranking noblemen who had their own castle as a defense in case of (frequent) feuds or a safe haven from which to strike trade routes and the likes. The 13th century with the almost total collapse of central authority in the Holy Roman Empire saw a high point in feuding but even after feuds were largely eliminated and legal recourse for disputes was established new castles were constructed for various defensive and - increasingly - representative purposes.
- 3 Marksburg, Braubach, Rhineland-Palatinate, ☏ . Medieval castle above the town of Braubach. Probably one of the best preserved in Germany as it was never taken. Open to the public.
- 4 Burgruine Streitburg, Wiesenttal, Forchheim, Upper Franconia. This ruined castle is on a hill right next to the hill Neideck stands on (see below) "Streit" means "quarrel" in German and the tale goes that the two neighboring castles had a quarrel with each other leading to the destruction of both. The actual history doesn't confirm that tale but locals like to tell it regardless.
- 5 Burgruine Neideck, Wiesenttal, Forchheim, Upper Franconia. Next to Streitburg on a neighboring hill, this castle ("Neid" means envy) is said to have fallen victim to the same quarrel as Streitburg although, again, the actual history was different.
- 6 Nuremberg Castle. Dating in its earliest parts to around the year 1000, this castle was at times an important residence for the Emperor when he traveled around his realm. Later the castle became a major symbol of the independent Freie Reichsstadt that was only subject to the emperor (and that only in theory) and it remains to this day a symbol of the largest city in Franconia.
True Castles (those built for defensive purposes) in the United Kingdom were constructed from the start of Norman Conquest onward, until the early 17th century when developments in military technology rendered them less effective from a defensive viewpoint. Sometimes the castles were built on or near the basis of early pre-Norman fortifications.
Whilst there are true castles in Scotland (notably Edinburgh and Stirling), there are also a number of tower-houses (effectively fortified residences).
- 7 Caernarfon Castle (Carnarvon Castle), Castle Ditch, Caernarfon, LL55 2AY, ☏ . (Welsh: Castell Caernarfon). An impressive work began in 1283 by England's King Edward I as his planned seat of power in his attempt to subjugate Wales. Like Beaumaris, this castle was quite functional, although never 100% completed. Notable use of this castle has included the investiture of a Princes of Wales on at least two occasions.
- 8 Windsor Castle, Windsor, SL4 1NJ. It was built by William the Conqueror following the Norman invasion in the 11th century, and has been used by the British royal family since the reign of King Henry I. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world and used by the Queen as her primary weekend residence, though the state rooms are open to the public when not in use for state ceremonies.
Although China does not have a tradition of castle-building per se, the Forbidden City is surrounded by fortifications, making it resemble a castle in this respect.
- Main article: Japanese castles
While different in style from their European counterparts, Japan was also a nation of castle builders during the feudal period from the start of the Kamakura Period (12th century) to the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (17th century). Unlike most surviving European castles, the main keeps (天守閣 tenshukaku) of Japanese castles were largely made of wood, so many have either decomposed or been lost to fire over the years. In addition, unlike in Europe, the main keep of the castle was a purely military structure and not the lord's residence, and there was typically a separate set of palace buildings next to the main keep to serve that purpose.
- 9 Nijo Castle (二条城), 〒604-8301 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Nijojocho, 541 (Kyoto Subway Nijojo-mae sation). Served as the Tokugawa Shogun's residence whenever he was visiting the emperor in Kyoto, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not classified as an original castle as the main keep was burnt down in a fire in 1750, but the outer fortifications and main palace buildings survive. Famous for its "nightingale floors", which were deliberately designed to squeak when someone walks on them so the Shogun and his guards could be alerted to any potential assassins.
- 10 Himeji Castle (姫路城), 〒670-0012 Hyōgo Prefecture, Himeji, Honmachi, 68 (JR Himeji station), ☏ , fax: . The only original Japanese castle to have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site to date, known for its white keep. Although the main keep is the original one, the palace buildings that served as the lord's residence have not survived.